For quite some time now, Charlottesville has been the fulcrum of all things local: food, farms, local and sustainable businesses. Recently, the University of Virginia has taken up the local food discourse and integrated it into its curricula with practical instruction.
Last March, a group of students began thinking about creating a sustainable, community garden on campus.
Professor Tim Beatley is the faculty mentor for the UVA Community Garden, a project that began with a couple of students and was later embraced by faculty and UVA administrators. “In a way it’s just a natural part of the sustainability agenda,” says Beatley. “We are thinking about how we live lightly on the planet … Food has to be a really important part of it.”
“At the beginning of last year, we had just a couple of students who were really interested in having a garden of some kind going here,” says Ben Chrisinger, a senior Urban and Environmental Planning major. “They were kind of working independently, but realized that it would be better if we unified our efforts.”
The students presented their idea to the Student Council Environmental Sustainability Committee and soon after, a task force was formed. For academic support, the students went to the Urban and Environmental Planning Department in the School of Architecture.
“It just made sense,” says Professor Tim Beatley. “In a way it’s just a natural part of the sustainability agenda. We are thinking about how we live lightly on the planet; we are thinking about how do you sustain, how do you support a growing global population on fewer resources, less land, and how do you do it in a way that will protect the resource base, and that’s essentially what sustainability is about. Food has to be a really important part of it.”
The department supports the concept of the garden and helps financially. Dana Smith is a second-year graduate student who has a work-study position to be garden manager. Smith will spend from 10 to 15 hours a week in the garden, watering, weeding, but, most importantly, educating and engaging undergraduate students who are interested in becoming part of a growing family. “This is definitely a teaching garden,” says Smith. “Thomas Jefferson was such an agrarian that we are trying to get back to his roots,” she says, by asking what it was like when the University was first built.
Today’s UVA Community Garden sits on the corner of Alderman and McCormick roads at the north edge of campus. Tall green beans and corn plants, red hot peppers and tiny eggplants decorate the 400-square-foot plot students have been working on the entire summer. In addition to being a practical learning tool, a “laboratory” for exploring different ways to grow peas, corn and other vegetables in tight spaces, the garden has a much broader goal.
“I think the intention was never to sell the food, to make a profit,” says Chrisinger. “It’s definitely not economically based; it’s more of a learning experiment.” The produce that was harvested during the summer was either taken by the hundreds of volunteers or donated to the Charlottesville Community Food Project, a nonprofit organization that provides fresh produce to low-income families.
Although faculty and administrators were instrumental in making the idea become a reality, the road hasn’t been without a few difficulties. As part of the agreement with administrators, the physical piece of land that the students were permitted to grow food on is defined by coordinates. Finding the right location for the garden was the toughest part of the project.
“It was very hard to find this spot,” says Beatley. “The students very much didn’t want a peripheral site, they wanted a spot that was close and central … it’s a perfect location.” The main concern that the University administrators had was what the garden would look like. “This has to look neat, it has to look tidy all the time, even during summer when students may not be here,” says Chrisinger.
Other sites around campus were also considered: a patch of land behind Gilmer Hall, a plot by the School of Architecture, among others. But, in the end, the current location was chosen for its visibility and proximity to student life.
“Food is high on the social agenda at the moment,” says Beatley. “Moons are lining up and that is helpful. Students reflect that broader social concern about food.”
Smith says that among the few ideas she has for the future of the garden, increasing the diversity of garden volunteers is at the top. “We need to figure out how to get students involved. It’s a unique opportunity and we have so many international students and I think it would be great to grow some things that are native to their countries,” she says.
Future expansion, says Beatley, is something that should be considered thinking outside of the box. His vision is to think of a garden as a collection of small plots around the University.
“We start to think about a farm in a more decentralized sort of form, spaces here and there. That’s really what a city is about,” he says.
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